Jeffrey H. Robbins



With the relaxing of restraints on advertising to American children during the Reagan Administration, marketers have pulled out all the stops in targeting the young. This paper examines the commercial exploitation of childhood and consequences as a case-in-point of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics at work. Drawing on physical chemist Peter W. Atkins’ 2nd Law metaphor as heavier weight falling linked to lighter weight rising, we contend that revenue streams driven by sophisticated marketing to children is, in large measure, at the expense of childhood, families, and the nation’s future. By systematically bracketing off all but the bottom line, we’ve become “a society that is eating its own children in the name of profit.” But, if indeed, the rising corporate order satisfies the 2nd Law by using the lives of children and families as convenient sinks for dissipative effluents, what is the modus operandi? What is the rope linking the rising and falling weights in Atkins’ metaphor? The proposed answer lies in evolving techniques capitalizing on an instinct that’s so natural, it knee-jerk bypasses most, if not all, critical judgment. Formally it’s called “the Principle of Least Effort,” the urge to preserve what was once precious food energy by seeking out and indulging in shortcuts. The techniques are especially effective with children.

Keywords: 2nd Law metaphor, food webs, marketing, “Principle of Least Effort,” shortcut.

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